At our press time, the people of Ukraine were waiting, as they have for weeks, to see what fate has in store for them. Vladimir Putin, the Russian despot, has been threatening to invade the country – again. Under Putin, Russia has already illegally occupied the Crimean peninsula and two enclaves in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian extremists are also in control in Transnistria, a breakaway entity to the west of Ukraine that the world community recognizes as part of Moldova. In the Russian countryside surrounding the parts of Ukraine that Russia has not already occupied, an estimated 190,000 Russian troops are poised to attack.
Putin’s designs on Ukraine are ostensibly about his concerns over Ukraine potentially joining NATO, which some Russians view as a step too far in the incremental loss of Russian dominance over what was once the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian Empire. He is also motivated by his own desire for power and expanding his influence. Along with other Russian nationalists, Putin views Ukraine as more than a neighbouring country but rather an integral part of a sacred Eurasian (Russian-dominated, of course) land.
Western powers have warned and cajoled Putin, who seems to revel in tormenting his adversaries. He is almost certainly aware that no one (save, perhaps, himself) wants war. The United States, having just catastrophically escaped a military debacle in Afghanistan, has no interest in continuing their role as the world’s policeman. The leaders of France, the United Kingdom, Germany and other Western powers have warned of serious consequences if Putin follows through on what appear to be unconcealed ambitions to invade, but none of those countries will risk the lives of their young people to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. It was precisely occasions like this for which the United Nations was envisioned, but the ideals of its founders have run aground on the rocks of realpolitik.
Genuine threats of reprisals are limited to economic sanctions. Here, too, Putin knows that embargoes and other economic penalties would be devastating not only for his country but for the economies of the West. Western Europe depends on Russian oil and anything – military instability or international sanctions – could send fuel and heating costs, which are already at record highs in many places, further through the ceiling. At a certain point, that could threaten the stability of some Western governments. More worrying is the fact that Ukraine has always been, and remains, the “breadbasket” of the region. Military or economic disruptions that harm Ukraine’s ability to get products to market could lead to food shortages. The possibilities are bleak.
Canada is home to one of the Ukrainian diaspora’s largest populations. More than 1.3 million Canadians are from, or descended from, the place. A significant proportion of North America’s Jewish population, too, is from that area and an even larger proportion departed to the new world through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Ukraine has somewhere between 43,000 and 200,000 Jews. Definitions of “who is a Jew” are complicated by nearly a century of enforced atheism and centuries more of rampant antisemitism. The 200,000 estimate is the number who would qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
According to the New York Times, synagogues have hired Israeli security guards and hired buses for rapid evacuations. The Jewish Agency is said to have evacuation plans at the ready.
For all Ukrainians, the past 100 years have been a series of tumults. Jewish Ukrainians have been especially vulnerable during these times of upheaval – and the older Jews today, and those with any sense of history, may rightly understand they have more to fear than other potential victims of a Russian invasion.
Israeli government officials have been remarkably tight-lipped on the subject, other than to urge the 12,000 Israelis in Ukraine to come home as soon as possible – reportedly only 4,000 have so far done so.
It is easy, understandable even, to suggest the time has come for Jews in Ukraine and other places where life is especially difficult, to leave for Israel or elsewhere. Certainly, we are thankful that Jews with nowhere else to go have a Jewish state ready to take them in.
But Ukraine is their home. There are hundreds of Jewish organizations and institutions in Ukraine, a place where Jewish civilization goes back 1,200 years and where a vast amount of Jewish culture emerged in the past several centuries, including important streams of Hasidism and many noted authors and artists.
As the world waits on Putin, the latest in far too long a line of Russian tyrants, we watch with a sense of helplessness, knowing that people are afraid and suffering. And we hope that those in power pull back from the brink.